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From where he stood, leaning gracefully against a silver birch tree, allowing his mount a moment's respite after the long ride from Sevenoaks, Grant Leighton was taken by surprise when two horse-ridersa man and a womancame thundering past him like the Light Brigade hurtling into the Valley of Death.
Utterly transfixed, he heard the woman's joyous laughter as her horse's competitive spirit flared; it seemed determined to keep ahead of its mate. Its mane and tail flying, legs flailing, the horse, setting a cracking pace, was galloping its heart out. From what Grant could make out, the other horse was beginning to tire and didn't stand a chance.
Looking through his binoculars, he watched them, filled with admiration for the woman's ability and daring. It was clear that she was utterly fearless. It was unusual to see a woman riding astride, with her mane of hair like polished mahogany flying behind, a tangled pennant of glossy waves. He could see buff-coloured breeches and riding boots beneath the skirts of her dark brown riding habit spread out over the horse's rump.
The man was riding a chestnut mare and the woman a grey stalliona huge beast, a thoroughbred and no mistake which would take some handling at the best of times and would challenge even his own.
Wide and emerald-green, the field stretched before them. Giving up the chase, the man slowed to a canter, but the woman carried on, riding beautifully, her slender and supple body, arresting and vigorous, bent forward, her gloved hands almost touching the horse's flicking ears, urging him on. Leaping a gorse hedge and landing soundly, she then soared over a wide ditch like a white swan and rode on, following the field round and down the other side, her body moving with her horse like a lover's, encouraging him every step of the way. Coming to the far end of the field, she slowed him to a canter. Riding through an open gate, with a backward look and a wave of her hand to her companion, who seemed in no hurry to follow her, she disappeared from sight.
Long after he could no longer see her Grant continued to stand and stare at the spot where she had vanished, half expectingand hopingto see her appear once more. Never had he seen a woman ride with so much skill. By God, she was magnificent. Deeply impressed, he was curious as to who she might be. He hadn't seen her features, so he would be unable to recognise her again, but he would dearly like to meet her.
The early morning was cool and crispunusual weather for earlyAugustbutAdeline, riding back to the stables, favoured it over the sticky heat of midsummer. As always, she had enjoyed her ride on her beloved Monty enormously, feeling those splendid muscles flexing beneath her. Pausing to retrieve her bonnet from where she had left it hanging on a fence, and hurriedly arranging her hair into a demure bun at her nape, she secured the untidy mess and tied the ribbon under her chin. How she would love to toss the bonnet aside and feel the wind tear through her hair once morebut that would never do. Not for the demure and prim Miss Adeline Osborne.
Now she was close to the house there was the possibility that she would be seen and her father informed, and he would chastise her most severely for riding with such complete abandon.
Horace Osborne was a strict authoritarian, and expected little of his daughter except that she behave as a well-brought-up young lady should. Adeline thought about her father as she followed the path. She was an only child, her mother deceased, and one would have thought she would be his golden child the adored centre of his lifebut he was indifferent to her. It was as if she was some kind of reject, and she was convinced that the reason for this rejection was her lack of beauty which her mother had possessed in abundance.
As soon as Adeline had come out of the schoolroom, and her governess had been dispensed with, she had taken on the business of running the householdinstructing servants, entertaining neighbours and her father's business colleagues, making things comfortable for him.
To her surprise and dismay, Paul was waiting in the stable-yard when she rode in, his presence reminding her of the importance of the day ahead. Later there was to be an 'at home' at Rosehill, to celebrate their engagement.
The sight of him put a dampener on her ride. Paul Marlow, a widower, and twenty years Adeline's senior, was distinguished-looking rather than handsomeof slender build, with fair hair peppered with white. Women were generally drawn to him. He moved carefully and spoke carefully. He was impeccable, and his clothes fitted him in a way that only the best tailors on Savile Row knew how to fit them.
A friend and neighbour, and a close business associate of her father, he was pacing the stableyard impatiently, with both hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets, his stern features set in an unsmiling expression of disapproval as he regarded his future wife. She knew he didn't like the way she rode astride like a man, or the breeches she wore beneath her skirts, but until they were married there wasn't a thing he could do about it.
'Why, Paul!' she exclaimed, dismounting and handing the reins to a stable lad. 'This is a surprise. I didn't expect to see you so early. Are you here to see Father?'
'He invited me over for breakfast. Adeline, it is most unbecoming for you to be riding unattended,' he said with cold reproof. The ride had given her cheeks a delightful red glow, but Paul failed to notice. 'A groom should be with you at all times.'
Adeline felt herself flushing at his strict censure and began to walk to the house. 'He wasJakebut I left him in the big field. He stayed to further exercise one of the horses. I really don't know why it should bother you so much. I have always ridden unattended. Besides, at this time of day the grooms are far too busy with the horses to waste time riding out with me.'
'But I insist. I cannot have my future wife behaving in a manner that is less than circumspect. It's bad enough you wearing those infernal breeches without that.'
'There is nothing wrong with my behaviour, Paul. I have ridden alone all my life, so it's a bit late in the day to start being concerned about appearances. A chaperon is quite unnecessaryand as for my breeches, I find them both comfortable and practical.'
Paul's brows drew together and he shot her a surprised lookAdeline rarely spoke sharply to anyone. 'There is something else to consider,' he continued, in a more tolerant tone. 'I am thinking of your safety, too. There is every possibility that you may take a tumble, and with no one on hand to assist you, where would you be?'
'I never fall off. I am an accomplished horsewoman, as you well know. However' she turned and smiled at him 'I am touched by your concern, Paul.'
'When you are married to me I will be prepared to allow you a certain amount of freedom, but I shall insist you are accompanied by a groom at all times, or you wait till I am free to ride with you.'
'Very well, Paul. As you say,' she murmured, having no wish to argue. 'Now, I think we had best hurry lest we are late for breakfast. We don't want to keep Father waiting, and I have to change.'
'There is one more thing, Adeline. Lady Waverley has kindly invited us to her house party next weekend. That should leave you adequate time to prepare for it.'
She looked straight ahead. The general tedium and vacuity of Saturday-to-Monday country house parties held no appeal for Adeline, who often went unnoticed. Diana Waverley was everything Adeline was not. Adeline was as plain as she was beautiful. Diana was also a popular socialite, free and easy with her modern manners, and her house parties were said to be fast and furiouswhich Adeline was sure she would find highly disagreeable.
'It would be good manners to reply, but how can I when I have received no invitation? It really is most unusual. You have accepted for us both, I take it?'
'Of course. An invitation to spend a weekend at Westwood Hall is not to be turned down, Adeline,'Paul told her starchily. 'Lady Waverley is renowned for her hospitality, and it is a heaven-sent opportunity to have our engagement made public.'
'I would have thought the announcement in the papers and this afternoon's gathering should take care of that.'
'It will, my dear. But a little extra exposure will not go amiss. Of course there will be society people there.' His eyes did a quick sweep of her riding habit, and Adeline was sure his lips curled with distaste. 'You may want to visit the dressmaker, to avail yourself of a new habit. Some of the ladies are passion for riding.
Adeline wasn't in love her, but she respected his Seldom courteous, often cruel, he appeared actually returning her smiles with tion with a request for Daughters were bartered and married young, while still malleable, passed like possessions from father to husband. They were expected to obey and be happy with this change in guardianship, and Adeline would be. Her father's word was law. But it saddened her that he saw her more as a commodity than a daughter.
Uncommonly tall and straight, and with a whipcord strength, Grant Leighton emanated an aura of carefully restrained power. He was a man of immense wealth. A great deal of his fortune came from land, taking no account of his industrial interestswhich were considerableand the London properties he owned.
He was admired and favoured by women, who liked the dominance of his arrogant ways. For years gossip had linked him to every beautiful, unattached woman in society, but marriage had not been an offer he'd made to any of them, and he had left a trail of broken hearts in his wake.
At twenty-nine, he had a handsome and intelligent face, lean and brown like a gypsy's, and eyes that were silver-grey. His hair was a shade between brown and blackthick, with a side parting, and combed smooth from his brow. He had a strong mouth with a humorous twist and was inclined to smilebut not just then.
His anxiety about his mother was at the forefront of his mind. She was the most precious person in the world to him, and at present she was recovering from a serious bout of influenza. After he had found her message, on his return from Sevenoaks, his worry that her request to see him must be bad news had made him urge his mount up the narrow drive to Newhill Lodge. The square, stonebuilt, ivy-clad house stood sedately in its neatly enclosed gardens, with tall trees casting shadows on its frontage.
As he approached and dismounted, a groom appeared to take his horse. The door was opened by a fresh-faced young maid. She smiled, bobbing a polite curtsy as he entered the house.
'Good morning, sir.'
'Good morning, Edith. Is my mother in her room?'
'Yes, sir. She's expecting you.'
'Then I'll go straight up.'
Carrying his riding whip, he strode across the hall, smiling when his eyes lit on a vase of newly cut, beautifully arranged pink roses. His mother loved flowers, and insisted on a constant supply of fresh blooms to be picked from her garden or sent over from his own hothouses at Oaklands, just half a mile away. He proceeded up the stairs.
Light fell through the lead-paned windows in bright shafts upon the polished floor, casting a warm glow on the fine mahogany staircase and the crimson and gold carpet. On the landing he knocked gently on his mother's bedroom door. It opened and Stella, his mother's maid and her companion of many years, bade him enter.
'How is she, Stella?'he asked in a low voice, lest he disturb his mother if she was sleeping.
'Tired. She had visitors earlier, and she is quite worn out, but she's eager to see you. Can I get you some refreshment?'
He shook his head. 'No, thank you. If Mother is tired my visit will be brief.'
Stella went out and closed the door quietly behind her. Grant approached his mother where she was resting, propped against the cushions on a chaise longue. A book and her knitting lay discarded on the small table beside her. Sunlight filtered through the lightweight curtains, bathing the room in a soft, golden glow. Her eyes were closed, and she looked frail and drained by her illness. There were deep hollows in her cheeks and her face was starkly white. Bending over, he placed an affectionate kiss on her forehead.
'Grant?' Hester Leighton opened her eyes and held out her hand to him. It was thin and deeply veined. 'I'm so glad you have come.'
He sat down in a chair facing her, his eyes clouded with concern as he touched her cheek with caressing fingers. 'I got your message. What is it that is so important you had to send for me? Are you feeling worse? Is that it?'
She offered him a thin, tired smile. 'No, Grant. Don't concern yourself. I'm feeling very much the sameperhaps a little better. There is something I want you to do for me.'
'And what is that?'
'No doubt you will think I'm mad, and that I'm a selfish old woman, but I've heard Rosehill is coming onto the market. I want you to buy it back for me.'
Grant's dark brows drew together. 'It's the first I've heard of it. Where has this information come from?'
'Mrs Bennet, the vicar's wife, told me yesterday when she came to visit. It was mentioned to Reverend Bennet when he was attending a parochial meeting at Sevenoaks. Apparently Mr Osborne is considering moving to London to live.'
'But that doesn't mean to say he will sell Rosehill.'
'Mrs Bennet seems to think he will. He spends so little time there, and his only childa daughteris to be married shortly, and will surely move out to live with her husband.'Her lips trembled. 'I rarely speak of your dear father, Grant. I find it extremely painful. It's been five years now, but I do still miss him so very much. Contrary to what people say, I find the dulling of grief and the passing of time have very little to do with each other.'